Historical reconstruction of sturgeon (Acipenser spp.) spatiotemporal distribution and causes for their decline in North-Western Europe

N.W.P. Brevé*, L.A.J. Nagelkerke, Tom Buijse, Theodorus J. van Tuijn, A.J. Murk, H.V. Winter, H.J.R. Lenders

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


This study aims to reconstruct the historical spatiotemporal distribution of the anadromous sturgeons, Acipenser sturio and A. oxyrinchus, in NW-Europe (especially in the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt, and Ems rivers, and in the North Sea), in light of evaluating the possibilities for their reintroduction. It is based on fisheries data from the 14th–twentieth century, consisting of > 5000 records of sturgeon landings and sales (c. 40,000 specimens) from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Luxemburg, France and Switzerland. Most data originate from fisheries in the Rhine-Meuse delta (c. 28,000 specimens, 98% of the Rhine catches). Further upstream, far fewer sturgeons (c. 600 specimens) were reported from the Rhine’s mainstem and its principal tributaries, Mosel, Neckar and Main. Smaller tributaries and the Ems, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers seldom yielded sturgeons. This spatial pattern can be related to the species’ preference for large-river habitat, combined with fisheries activities that were most intensive in the delta areas. Sturgeon catches began to dwindle in the late nineteenth century, at a time when river engineering first strongly affected the sturgeon’s reproductive habitats in the Lower Rhine and delta areas. Also from then onwards, North Sea fishery pressure increased, as trawlers switched from sail to steam-powered propulsion. These sea fisheries harvested all age-classes of sturgeons year-round, including populations from other European rivers. The outcomes strongly suggest that NW-European sturgeon populations were initially impacted by intensive river fisheries, but especially by destruction of reproductive habitat, due to river regulation, and an intensified North Sea fishery, ultimately resulting in total population collapse.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1149-1173
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number4
Early online date15 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022


  • Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus)
  • European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio)
  • Historical biogeography
  • Overfishing
  • River engineering
  • Steam trawl fishery


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